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My father did it this way… and so do I

Younger generations of fly fishers are breaking the rules and busting the myths!


Just because grandfather, father, uncle, aged gillie etc did it, it does not mean that younger fly fishers should do likewise!
Just because grandfather, father, uncle, aged gillie etc did it, it does not mean that younger fly fishers should do likewise!

When I started fly-fishing around six decades ago trout fishing in the north of England was dominated by the spider wet fly, and not only in rivers but in our reservoirs which, before the introduction of the rainbow trout, had big heads of diminutive brownies. I can recall catching the bus from Preston to Horwich to fish the Rivington reservoirs that lie beneath the mast-bedecked Winter Hill, visible to all from the M6 south of Preston. The flies: Orange Partridge, Snipe & Purple and Waterhen Bloa were my favourite cast; and the bag: half a dozen 8” brownies that were taken home and fried in butter that evening. I rarely saw another angler, even though the cost of a season permit from the Water Board was tiny.

In those days I couldn’t afford the cost of an expensive salmon, sea trout and brown trout river club, so I fished the lower Ribble in which brown trout were fairly scarce and through which salmon and sea trout hurtled to cleaner waters upstream. But then the river was stuffed with chub and dace, and with the same three fly cast and occasional changes (such as using Black Magic and/or Williams’s Favourite when there were lots of real black flies about) I caught some small and some very large bags, which accumulated in a keep net tied to my belt. In those days everyone wore thigh waders and I usually ended up with a wet backside.

I did meet other fly fishers on the Ribble and they all did the same as I: a cast of three spiders cast down-and-across the flow, rather like fishing for salmon. Step-and-cast was the rule, both in some club rule books or unspoken otherwise. Even if trout were rising, the method was the same: ignore the fish...step-and-cast from pool neck to pool tail, for that was how the older North Country fly-fishers did it and they would know best. Wouldn’t they?

Then I bumped into Jack Norris. I was on a stretch of the upper Ribble owned by a new club. I had tackled up at the car and had walked upstream to a nice run I had fished the previous week. There a diminutive chap, wearing tweeds was sitting on the bank and watching the river. Why wasn’t he wading in the water and casting his flies down and across?

“The hatch hasn’t started yet,” said he. Then he added, at the same time pointing to the three flies tied to my leader, “You’re a young chap. You shouldn’t be fishing that sort of fly! When trout are rising to a hatch you should be fishing dry flies!”

And opening a box – a shallow biscuit tin upholstered in leather with neat compartments inside – he showed me the most beautifully dressed range of dry flies and then took a dozen and gave them to me. (Jack was one of the UKs top master upholsterers, and had even done the leather surround for championship snooker tables!) I watched Jack. A trout rose, his fly covered it. The fish rose again and Jack played it out. Dead simple.“Why does everyone else fish wet flies like they do? That is much easier!”
“Tradition. That’s how it’s always been done in the rivers up North. Dry fly, they think, is only for southern chalk streams.”

That afternoon of eye-opening got me thinking: are there other areas of fly-fishing where it’s done that way because granddad did it that way?

I found that there were. And I will give you some instances.

When salmon fly-fishing, cast the fly out down and across and, as the fly swings across the stream and a belly forms in the line, make a big mend. On a very long cast you may make several mends to “slow down the fly”. The old books are stuffed with advice about mending the line to slow down the fly. But I know very few that encourage you to work the fly; to speed it up by tweaking it back or figure-of-eight retrieve. I can’t fish for salmon  now...age, dear reader....but in my last decade of salmon fishing more salmon took my fly when it was being worked and without a mend to the line, than they did  an unworked fly.

The easiest way to catch sea trout is with wet flies, whether on lochs/loughs or rivers, and dry fly is rather a waste of time. After all, if dry fly was any good, wouldn’t people use it? And did not Hugh Falkus not write, in his 448 page tome Sea Trout Fishing, “At this point, I suppose, we ought to have something about dry fly fishing. It will not be much, because I don’t know much about it.” When Hugh invited me to be his co-author in a little book that summarised our thoughts on catching salmon and sea trout (The Salmon and Sea Trout Fisher’s Handbook), he was astounded that I had used dry fly – most successfully with large dries such as size 10 Brown Sedges or dry Daddy-long-legs – in so many rivers that he knew, including Spey, Dee, Tweed and Nith, Ribble/Hodder, Lune and Cumberland Derwent, and in Ireland some of the Foyle system tributaries. All you need is a summer low water and plenty of fresh-run fish. As far as lochs/loughs are concerned, if the wind drops and wet fly ceases to work on a great sea trout water, plonk out a Daddy...or three on a three-fly cast...and you have a great chance. On one occasion I caught a lovely sea trout for an audience of local river fly-fishers who had never heard of sea trout taking dries and suddenly arrived to watch me do it, and on another occasion tickled one of the top gillies by catching a belter, from a great loch when the wind had died a death, on a cork-bodied Daddy.

In the olden days (up to the 1970s?) river trout flies were either dry (they floated on the surface) or wet (they sank, and this included both weighted and unweighted wet flies, nymphs and bugs). But then some observant fly-fishers noticed that trout sometimes prefer to take a fly that is in between: the rear end is just below the surface, the body is in the surface and the wings and sometimes hackle on and above the surface. This style was developed by dear old Hans van Klinken with his Klinkhammer style, and in what others came to call the ‘Emergers’.

My own most interesting observation on this subject was made on the Eden near Appleby during a late evening hatch of blue-winged olive duns. The trout ignored my fully-floating dry imitation and I noticed that they did not take every dun that floated over them. I caught some of the hatched BWO duns from the water surface, and found that some had tails still stuck inside the nymphal shuck. And then thinking about it I had often seen BWOs and pale water duns with twisted tail filaments, suggesting that some of them had found it difficult to free their tails from the shuck. Perhaps a hatching dun that was twitching to free itself from its nymphal shuck was a better trigger to the trout? The consequence of this was that I began to tie more emergers and no-hackled dry flies than the older conventional type. But if you do likewise, beware! There is at least one day ticket beat where the rule is dry fly only and NO EMERGERS. Why NO EMERGERS? Because they catch too many trout? And if they do, is it because they better imitate that real surface fly? Or is it because of tradition and we have always fished that way?

You see, mending the line when you are salmon fishing may stop you catching a salmon that would perhaps have taken a tweaked fly, and casting a big dry fly may catch you sea trout that would have ignored a wet fly. And when wild brown trout are taking a real fly that has part of its body below the surface, you are more likely to have your emerger taken than a fully floating dry fly. And just because grandfather, father, uncle, aged gillie and the older club members did it that way, it does not mean that you younger fly-fishers should do likewise.

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